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As Gitmo plods, Obama's winning the case for court

By Eileen Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15 2013 9:15 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 30, 2010 file photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, a U.S. trooper stands in the turret of a vehicle with a machine gun, left, as a guard looks out from a tower at the detention facility of Guantanamo Bay U.S.

Brennan Linsley, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Four years after his failed effort to bring the 9/11 mastermind to New York for trial, President Barack Obama has reinstated the federal courthouse as America's preferred venue for prosecuting suspected terrorists.

His administration has done so by quietly securing conviction after conviction in the civilian judicial system. Meanwhile at Guantanamo Bay, admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's case moves at a snail's pace.

Tuesday's expected arraignment of suspected al-Qaida member Abu Anas al-Libi is the latest example of Obama's de facto policy. Al-Libi was captured in a military raid in Libya earlier this month and had been under interrogation aboard a U.S. warship.

The Obama administration says it considers all options for prosecuting terrorists, weighing military and civilian trials on a case-by-case basis.

But Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base that embodied America's post-9/11 methods of interrogating and prosecuting suspected terrorists, has turned into a legal morass. The military commission's poor case record has become less about winning and more about completion.

While the Justice Department says more than 125 people have been convicted of terrorism charges in federal courts since 2009, not a single military commission has come to a close during that period.

Of the few military commissions completed under President George W. Bush, most resulted in short sentences or have been overturned.

"There's really no comparison in terms of the success rate," said David Raskin, the former top national security prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan. "Not really between wins or losses, just finishing the cases. There's no comparison at this point."

The politics are breaking Obama's way too.

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2009 that Mohammed would be tried in New York City, the outcry from both political parties was great.

Some feared a high-profile terrorism trial would put the city at risk. Others said a civilian courthouse, with all the rights afforded defendants there, was no place for a terrorist.

Obama, who came into office promising to close Guantanamo Bay and prosecute terrorists in federal courts, buckled under the pressure and pulled the case back to Guantanamo.

Since then, not much has changed at the naval base in Cuba. Mohammed is one of 164 men held there and one of six facing trial. Those trials have stalled largely because of legal challenges to the commission system itself.

In federal courts, however, the Obama administration is quietly churning through terror cases and putting many terrorists away for life.

One of the first key cases was against Ahmed Ghailani, a former Guantanamo detainee who was transferred to New York early in Obama's administration. He was convicted in 2010 and is serving a life sentence in prison.

Last year, Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, an Iraqi man, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in Kentucky and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Hammadi's co-defendant got a 40-year sentence for his role in a plot to ship weapons and cash to insurgents in Iraq.

Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali citizen accused of helping support and train al-Qaida-linked militants, pleaded guilty earlier this year. Like al-Libi, he was questioned aboard a U.S. warship before being turned over to the civilian justice system.

Each new trial brought fresh criticism from Republicans, but that criticism diminished each time.

Some Republican lawmakers criticized Monday's announcement that al-Libi would face trial in court. They questioned whether interrogators questioned him long enough.

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